Senators sparred Wednesday over whether and how to subsidize federal loans for college students, whose total debt load has tripled in the last eight years. But missing in the tug of war over the “Keeping Student Loans Affordable Act" was any significant debate over how to keep the skyrocketing price of college affordable for parents and students.

In the end, Republicans filibustered a bill that would have cut the 6.8  percent rate for federal subsidized loans back to 3.6 percent for one year. Experts in higher education say that by focusing on making borrowing cheap, while public grant money dries up and student-loan debt balloons past $1 trillion, Congress is missing the point altogether.

Sara Goldrick-Rab, an associate professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, calls the student loan debate “the tip of the iceberg” of a looming crisis in higher education that Congress seems decades away from addressing.

“I love that people are getting upset, because it’s amazing how long people have not paid attention to this problem,” she said. “But I'm sad at how misdirected the attention is.” Goldrick-Rab said driving down the price to attend college, not making it easier to finance massive tuitions, should be the focus of the debate in Washington. She testified to the Senate in April that many college campuses have become “glorified summer camps,” made downright luxurious in many cases by universities engaging in an arms race to have the most impressive bells and whistles for prospective students, parents, and college-ranking publications.  

“We are paying through the nose for prestige,” Goldrick-Rab said. “And colleges are finding that the more you charge, the more people want it and are willing to pay for it.”

Prestige on college campuses comes in many packages. In some cases, it’s Division I sports teams, the majority of which are subsidized by student fees and general school funds. In other cases prestige comes in the form of well-known tenured professors, some of whom Goldrick-Rab said may teach one class a year while part-time, low-salaried instructors pick up the extra teaching load. The average full professor’s compensation at American schools last year was $134,000, up about 2 percent from 2011, although many made significantly more. 

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